Spy versus spy in Iran, North Korea
By Donald Kirk
SEOUL - The case of the American freelance journalist sentenced to eight years
in prison in Iran for spying for the United States has a disquieting relevance
to the dangers facing two American journalists held at the other end of former
United States president George W Bush's "axis of evil" - North Korea.
While Roxana Saberi, 31, appeals her weekend conviction in Tehran after an
in-camera trial that lasted one day, the two Americans, Laura Ling and Euna
Lee, seized by North Korean soldiers on March 17, are in a "state guest house"
near the capital Pyongyang on charges of "hostile acts", including espionage.
They were on China's northeastern Tumen River border with North Korea filming
for former US vice president and environmental activist Al Gore's Current TV
network on an especially sensitive
topic - the flight of North Korean defectors from the horrors of starvation,
disease, jailing, torture and beatings.
United States President Barack Obama said he was "gravely disappointed" over
the sentence meted out to Saberi. The issue now is whether an appeals court
will significantly reduce or suspend the sentence - or even throw out the
conviction. Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad even wrote to the prosecutor,
requesting that she and a Canadian blogger have the chance to "freely and
legally defend themselves" - and possibly win a reprieve.
Saberi and the blogger share an Iranian heritage. Saberi's father, Rezi, is
Iranian and is now in Tehran to try to bring his daughter back to the home in
North Dakota that she left six years ago to report from Tehran. The blogger,
Hossein Derakhshan, born, raised and educated in Iran before moving to London
and Toronto, was operating a pioneering website until his arrest in November.
He, too, faces charges of espionage - in his case, spying for Israel, which he
visited in 2007 in a highly publicized bid for Iran-Israel reconciliation.
The parallels between the case of Saberi and that of Ling and Lee may be
obvious, so much so that the US State Department, working behind the scenes,
hopes the North Koreans will see the benefits of letting them go. If North
Korean authorities insist on a trial at which Ling and Lee will inevitably be
convicted and sentenced, Obama may be expected to issue a similar statement of
The coincidence between the jailing of these three American broadcast
journalists who were by all accounts in aggressive pursuit of exclusive
stories, goes to the larger issue of the nuclear programs of both Iran and
North Korea - and their cooperation with each other.
Saberi was interested in Iran's nuclear program, which the US charges has
military implications well beyond the peaceful uses claimed by Iran. Ling and
Lee were not necessarily going to report on North Korea's program, linked to
that of Iran through exchanges of technology and the sale of North Korean Scud
and Rodong missiles, but North Korean authorities can make up any story they
want about what they were doing. Unlike Iran, they've manufactured nuclear
warheads and vow to go on doing so now that the United Nations Security Council
has condemned their launch of the long-range Taepodong-2 missile on April 5.
The cases, however, have highly disturbing differences. Iran may seem like a
forbidding place, to judge from reports of what's happening to Saberi, but it's
a free and open society compared to North Korea.
While Saberi's father remains in Tehran, pleading on his daughter's behalf with
Iranian officials, diplomats and journalists, the parents of Laura Ling, of
Chinese ancestry, and Euna Lee, Korean-American, are not able to see their
daughters. Nor do Ling and Lee have a loquacious lawyer, as does Saberi,
appearing on TV, arguing their case.
In Tehran, as in Pyongyang, the US relies on diplomats from other countries to
visit US citizens in jail in the absence of diplomatic relations with either
Iran or North Korea. Swiss diplomats have seen Saberi behind bars in Tehran,
and a Swedish diplomat has visited Ling and Lee at the "guest house", as it's
described, near Pyongyang.
Unlike Saberi, Ling and Lee are not believed to have had any other foreign
visitors, certainly not their parents. North Korean authorities like to say
they are following all the rules of diplomacy in dealing with criminal cases,
but that single conversation that each of them has had with the Swede is the
only chance they've had to get a message through to anyone on their side.
Another enormous difference is that Ling and Lee had not spent years reporting
from inside North Korea, as had Saberi - they had never been there until the
guards detained them.
Whether they had actually stepped across the line in the Tumen River, frozen
solid when they were picked up, is not clear. They were with a Chinese-Korean
guide who is suspected of having been informing for the North Koreans and to
have put them into the hands of North Korean soldiers after bringing them to
the river bank on the lure of exclusive TV footage. It's also not clear what
happened to the guide, whether he got away from the North Koreans or was also
detained. In any case, he's believed now to be in Pyongyang.
One person does know what happened - or as much as he could tell from having
been a part of the incident. That's cameraman and producer Mitch Koss, who was
with Ling and Lee and escaped. He was arrested by the Chinese, but has left
China, probably for San Francisco, the home of Current TV, an Internet-based
To judge from Koss' silence, he has been told in no uncertain terms to keep his
mouth shut while negotiators try to spring Ling and Lee. It's assumed, if and
when he does talk, that he will be able to clarify how the guide led them into
what appears to be a trap and exactly where everyone was standing.
It would not be correct, however, to think that Ling and Lee were not well
briefed beforehand on the horrors of life in North Korea - or the risks they
were taking by venturing down to the bank of the Tumen River, a shallow stream
that defectors can cross by foot whether it is frozen or not. Nor did they rely
solely on interviews with South Korean defectors, arranged through a South
Korean non-governmental group called Durihana, whose leader, the Reverend Chun
Ki-won, was imprisoned for 10 months in China years ago for trying to help
defectors escape to Mongolia.
Ling, at the age of 32, was following in the footsteps of her older sister,
36-year-old Lisa Ling, who's gained celebrity status as a far-ranging reporter
for Oprah and National Geographic television. Lisa may well have encouraged
Laura on her North Korean documentary after having scored one of her greatest
coups three years ago with an epic "Inside North Korea" for National
Some of Lisa's dialogue in that extraordinary piece of reporting was eerily
prophetic of the ordeal now confronting her younger sister. As she said near
the opening, "North Korea is the most terrifying country on Earth."
Lisa in the documentary shows how she filmed on a skillfully hidden camera
while posing as a volunteer for a Nepalese eye doctor who went to North Korea
to cure hundreds of North Koreans, most of them blinded by advanced cataracts.
She minced no words as she reported, "Immediately, there's a feeling of being
cut off from the rest of the world."
That same scary sense pervades the case of Lisa's sister Laura and Euna Lee.
Now, whether North Korean authorities will want to release the two, enabling
them to embellish on Lisa's words, is anyone's guess.
Tim Peters, whose organization, Helping Hands Korea, works closely with North
Korean defectors, notes the film was definitely "embarrassing for the regime",
especially in a re-enactment scene showing defectors trying to leave. In case
anyone missed the point, Lisa Ling recounted what she called the "unimaginable
horrors that people risk their lives to escape".
The ordeal of Ling and Lee has become all the more politicized since North
Korea on April 14 said it was resuming its nuclear weapons program and expelled
inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency after the UN Security
Council condemned the launch. At the same time, North Korea said it would
"never" again join in six-party talks under which it agreed in 2007 to disable
and then dismantle all its nuclear facilities in return for a vast infusion of
Kim Sang-hun, active for years on behalf of North Korean defectors, fears North
Korean outrage may complicate pleas for the women's release. North Korean
authorities, he said, may see the two "as an opportunity for revenge" for the
insults heaped on the North by Lisa Ling.
There is no doubt that Lisa Ling's report was one of the most severe
indictments of North Korea ever to appear on television - for what she said as
well as what she saw and surreptitiously filmed. "North Korea is ruled by an
absolute dictator who has nuclear weapons," Lisa concluded. "What happens here
in the Hermit Kingdom may touch everyone in the world."
Now, Laura Ling and Euna Lee are caught up in a system in which sister Lisa
professed to have "started to get a sense of what it's like to be trapped under
the iron grip of Kim Jong-il" - one in which "Kim Jong-il controls everything."
Kim Sung-han was cautiously optimistic that the two would eventually go home.
He made a distinction between their case and those of approximately 500 South
Koreans, mostly fishermen, picked up within North Korean territorial limits, as
well as 20 or 30 Japanese kidnapped from Japanese soil in the late 1970s and
early 1980s for whom the North has made no real accounting.
The difference is that North Korea says all of those either do not exist or are
living in North Korea voluntarily, whereas the North acknowledges holding Ling
and Lee. The best hope is that North Korea, after a prolonged process in which
it extracts some concessions from the US in the form of promises of aid or
diplomatic relations or both, will hand them over as a "goodwill gesture".
Kim doubts that they are being subjected to the beatings and torture that are
routine in North Korean interrogations. After all, if they do get out, they
might be inclined to speak well of their captors if treated properly.
Or, if they stay long enough, maybe they, too, will become professed believers,
teaching English to North Koreans, interpreting and translating, as have others
who have fallen into the North Korean net. Lisa Ling suggested that eerie fate
when she remarked in her documentary, "Finally, it hit me, there may not be a
difference between true belief and true fear."
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of
forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.